Review: 'Train to Busan' is as much about character development as it is about zombies

Jin-hee (Ahn So-hee) feels for her life in “Train to Busan.” (Golden Village Pictures)

Secret ending? No.

Running time: 118 minutes (~2 hours)

“Train to Busan” is a Korean apocalyptic zombie thriller about a group of survivors who find themselves in a zombie apocalypse. Their only hope for escape is to get to Busan via train. It stars Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Kim Su-an (Su-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-shik (Young-guk), Ahn So-hee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yong-suk).

How good can a zombie film get, right? Plus it’s not as if Korea is famous for its vast library of zombie films. But “Train to Busan” proved me wrong in its violence and surprising amount of emotional depth. At heart, it’s about a father trying to find redemption in the eyes of his daughter, amidst zombies trying to kill everyone in sight. And it’s this relationship that elevates this film from being a battle for survival to a fight for family.

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) cradles Su-an (Kim Su-an) in “Train to Busan.” (Golden Village Pictures)

Highlights

Tense and horrifying

The zombies come in literal waves, scrambling and crawling over each other to get to the tasty, tasty humans. They are the literal embodiment of a Chinese idiom, 人山人海, which translates to “mountains and seas of people.” In addition, these are really quick zombies which jump out of nowhere to attack, adding to the constant atmosphere of tension. Finally, there are so many glass walls and panels, which are perennially filled with walls of zombies on the other side attempting to break through. It’s a frightening trek to Busan, even if most of it takes place on a train.

A clear antagonist

Yong-suk (Kim Eui-sung) is rather on-the-nose in the way that he’s the evil counterpart to Seok-woo (Gong Yoo), but it also helps us to focus the latent fear and anger against a specific character. It makes the story even more personal, since we want to see this antagonist felled by the zombies, even though he miraculously keeps on surviving, despite being an unathletic grumpy old man. And this added obstacle that you can’t really kill (since he’s human) ups the tension, since you never know when he’s going to betray them.

Touching father-daughter relationship

Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) begins as the stereotypical father who seeks to buy Su-an (Kim Su-an), his daughter’s love with money rather than time, and has to face the painful consequences of his parenting failures when he discovers what she plans to do. In turn, Su-an despises her father and his selfishness, and makes her derision very clear. But both eventually find what they’re truly looking for in a father-daughter relationship, and Seok-woo’s growth to become the father that Su-an needs is the most human and emotional aspect of the film.

A tale of redemption

In the course of the burgeoning relationship between father and daughter, we also see how Seok-woo’s innate character isn’t as morally reprehensible as it might first seem. He’s certainly no angel, but he’s also a much better person than his daughter, and in fact the people around him, give him credit for. As we and Su-an see him repeatedly placed in life-threatening situations, we discover the good in our main protagonist. It also helps that his evil counterpart, Yong-suk, does the opposite of what Seok-woo does most of the time.

Sang-hwa (Ma Dong-seok) in “Train to Busan.” (Golden Village Pictures)

Letdowns

Depressing ending

Our heroes make it to the end (Busan, it’s right there in the title), but it’s heavily implied that the rest of Korea, and possibly the world may have fallen to the zombie apocalypse. When you see just how quickly the infection can spread in the film, you’ll understand why. In addition, there are copious casualties as they make their way to Busan, more so than most zombie films. Combined, it just makes “Train to Busan” a rather bleak take on zombie films.

Will Su-an be eaten in “Train to Busan?” (Golden Village Pictures)

“Train to Busan” is as much about character development as it is about zombies.

Should you watch this at weekend movie ticket prices? Yes.

Should you watch this more than once? It takes on an even more ironic tone if you do, so yes!

Score: 4.5/5

“Train to Busan” opens in cinemas:
- 4 August, 2016 (Singapore)
- 8 September, 2016 (Malaysia)

Marcus Goh is a Singapore television scriptwriter. He’s also a Transformers enthusiast and avid pop culture scholar. He Tweets/Instagrams at Optimarcus and writes at marcusgohmarcusgoh.com. The views expressed are his own.